Black Refugee letters shed light on life after slavery
War of 1812 documents show literate, passionate Nova Scotian newcomers
A new Halifax exhibit is shedding light on previously unseen letters written by freed Nova Scotians to their former slave masters in the U.S. after the War of 1812.
"Prize and Prejudice" is part of the Canadian War Museum’s travelling show. It provides new insight into the Black Refugee experience in the province, says Martin Hubley, history curator of the Nova Scotia Museum.
Though I may never see any of you again, my dear mother, yet I shall always think of you and love you.- William Whiddington
“Most historical accounts of the Black Refugees treat them as if they’re an illiterate, farming, labourer, slave plantation community," Hubley says.
"These letters show exactly the opposite. Many of these people were literate and wrote very powerful and moving messages back to their families and former masters.”
Some were skilled as goldsmiths, blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters and other trades.
About 4,000 Black Refugees fled the U.S., with 2,000 coming to Nova Scotia and today’s New Brunswick.
“Their primary motivation was their liberty, and the British also promised land anywhere in British North America,” Hubley says.
Many joined the British naval or land forces to fight the U.S. “They also served in the navy, they served as guides, they helped the army on raids, they piloted ships, they worked as sailors. Others just fled and got land and liberty.”
One man, Bartlet Shanklyn, stole a boat and sailed to British ships off the U.S. coast.
Shanklyn wrote to his former master to tell him he was doing better as a free man than when he was held as a slave. He accosts his former master for not giving him “satisfaction,” a heavy insult at the time.
A man called William Whiddington wrote to the family he left behind.
“Though I may never see any of you again, my dear mother, yet I shall always think of you and love you. I hope I shall act so honestly and soberly in this world that when I die, I may met all my friends in a happy state of eternity," he wrote.
Ironically, the letters were preserved by the former masters to show the British had stolen “property” from them and owed compensation.
The exhibit is at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic until Oct. 13. The letters themselves are on loan from the United States National Archive and will be at the museum until June 2015.